By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — The UConn womens' basketball team has won four straight NCAA championships and is currently riding a 90-game win streak. To stay on top of the basketball world, the team's coaching staff has to have an eye for talent.
The Huskies already have their eyes on an 11-year-old from Center Conway — Sydney Shaw.
The Pine Tree School fifth grader, practiced with the Huskies on Dec. 4, did shooting drills with Coach Geno Auriemma, and played horse with and beat her favorite player Kia Nurse (a 6' junior from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada). The following day she was an ambassador for the Huskies in their game against the University of Texas at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.
It was a weekend that Sydney and her parents, Mellanie and Andy Shaw and her sister, Natalie, will never forget.
"It was honestly like being in a dream," Andy said. "As a parent you wish you could give your child the most amazing gift. I can't put into words just how amazing this was."
The experience came about due to Sydney's unselfishness and compassion for others.
"About six months ago, Sydney's amazing teacher Abby O'Haire (third grade at Pine Tree School) asked Sydney if she could have one wish what would it be," Mellanie, who is currently in remission after beating non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for the second time, said. "At the time, Sydney just wanted me to get better so that was her wish. Her teacher asked her again, if she could have one wish what would it be? She thought about it for days but didn't want to tell anyone because she thought it was an unrealistic wish. About a week went by and Sydney quietly told Andy and I that she had thought of a wish but didn't want to ask for it. She wanted to go meet her idol (Nurse) and favorite basketball team (UConn). If you know Sydney you know she lives and breathes basketball. Abby O'Haire wanted to put a smile on her face. She reached out to Shooting Star Fund and made it all happen."
According to its website, the Shooting Star Fund's mission, "is to improve the lives and lift the spirit of children who are facing serious physical or emotional hardship in order to restore their sense of well-being and trust in a caring community. Every gift is thoughtfully chosen with each child's interests in mind. They are meant to bring joy and show these special children that the entire valley community cares and supports them."
The organization started in the spring of 2008 by four local women who saw that there are young children in the Mount Washington Valley who struggle with extremely difficult situations such as serious accidents, the loss of a parent or a life threatening diagnosis. Wanting to let these children know that our community cares about them, these women organized, raised money through a dinner circle of friends, and in its first year of operation have begun the process of reaching children through school guidance counselors and nurses, fulfilling children's wishes, and letting children know that their valley community cares.
Founder and President of Shooting Star Fund, Ivette Emery, said "We grant wishes and thoughtfully select gifts to be a lasting source of joy for each special child."
Chole Pavlech, a guard for the University of Maryland last year, which reached the Final Four, now an intern with the coaching staff at UConn, was the contact for the Shaw family. She arranged the visit with the team.
The family got to sit and watch a closed practice on Dec. 3.
"We were sitting watching a transfer student from Duke (Azura Stevens), who is 6'6", work on her low post moves when Geno Auriemma came over to talk with us," Andy Shaw said. "He said to Syndey, 'Hi, I'm Geno Auriemma, and your name is?' She said, 'I'm Sydney.' You could see she was completely overwhelmed."
Auriemma asked Sydney if she had brought any of her basketball gear with her. Indeed she had.
"He said, 'Lace up your sneakers and let's have a shoot around,'" Andy said. "Sydney got to shoot on the court while I rebounded for her. She was having a blast and was getting more and more comfortable out there."
Sydney was working on her two-ball dribble, dribbling two balls at one time, one in each hand, working her way up and down the court.
"She had her back to everyone when the UConn team came out," Andy said. "The players were pretty impressed with Sydney."
The Huskies practiced for three and a half hours. When practice ended the players came over and introduced themselves to Sydney.
"Kia Nurse, Sydney's favorite player because of how she plays the game all-out," invited Sydney for a shoot-around and then the two of them played horse," Andy said. "Sydney beat her."
"I have never seen Sydney so excited," Mellanie said.
The family got to go into the UConn locker room where all 11 of the national championship trophies are stored.
The team went to dinner, but Nurse stayed and chatted with Sydney for an additional 15 minutes, according to Andy.
"Geno came over after that and said, 'Let's do some shooting," Andy recalled. "He asked Sydney if she could make a foul shot. She said yes. He said, 'All right, I'm going to teach you a game — it's you against Diana Taurasi (a four-time UConn All-America guard). For every shot you make, you get a point. If you miss, Diana gets three. Sydney lost the game 21-7.
"After that, Geno told Sydney to go to her favorite spot on the floor where she felt most comfortable," he continued, and Sydney picked one of the top blocks (above the key). She made six in a row at one point to take a 15-6 lead. Coach Auriemma looked at an assistant and said, 'We need to start scouting her now.'"
"She admires Geno and thinks he is an amazing coach," Mellanie said. "She was so speechless and it warmed Andy and my heart! Natalie was part of this experience too and it was such a wonderful memory us. Of course, I shed a tear and I felt so blessed to be a part of that joyous occasion."
The following day, at the Mohegan Sun, the Shaw family had seats in the UConn family section. Sydney was asked if she would like to be an honorary Huskie, which meant being on the court to high-five the players when they entered the arena. Participants got an autographed small basketball for their efforts.
"Kia was the last player introduced and before she came out she and Sydney waved to each other," Andy said. "Kia came out, high-fived with Sydney, and gave her the autographed ball."
Nurse comes from a famous family.
"We were sitting there and I looked to my right and there was Donovan McNabb (former NFL quarterback)," Andy said. "He's Kia's uncle. It was just amazing."
Prior to the game, during team warmups, the Shaw family got to meet Kara Lawson, former WNBA player and now basketball television analyst for ESPN.
"She sat next us and basically gave us the entire scouting report for Texas," Andy said smiling. "I can't even fathom our two days, you couldn't make this stuff up. It was a weekend none of will ever forget."
UConn won the game 72-54.
"There are no words to describe the (weekend)," Mellanie added. "We've never seen Sydney so happy."